visual continuity (film narrative) a grammar for the staging of action and the editing of shots for narrative film. As whole continuity for mimetic realism, for realist film narrative, includes a range of procedures for continuity which includes dialogue, action, props, lighting, camera and sound, but even with all of these in place the material, the shots produced during filming will not edit together unless the set ups, the camera shots, maintain visual continuity for editing. This is the area of continuity that covers aspects of framing, the relationship of the camera to the performers and the movement of the performers. The rules for visual continuity are: change of image size, screen sections, 30 degree rule, 180 degree rule, eye line match, movement in and out of frame and screen direction.
Change of image size: In the diagram above the wide shot on the left and the mid shot on the right will edit together, because the two framings have distinct differences in image size. However, the shot on the left and the shot in the middle have only minor differences between them and if they were edited together the effect would be of a small irritating jump in an edited sequence, because the framings are so close together.
When set ups are framed care must be taken so that there are significant differences in the size of the figures in the image. The framing conventions of long shot, wide shot, mid shot, close up and extreme close up set out how figures should be framed.
Another guide for framing is to ensure that figures are not cropped at the joints. If the framing of a set up crops through the neck, the head will look like it is floating, if the framing crops through the waist, the knee, or the ankle all these compositions will tend to look awkward. Framings that crop across the chest and across the thigh remove any visual oddities when framing shots with performers.
Screen Sections: If a set up frames a figure at one side of the frame, then any other set ups will keep the figure at the same side. In the diagram above the framings on the left and in the middle maintain screen sections while the framing on the right jumps the figure across the frame, which in editing would only confuse the audience. When designing set ups the director and cinematographer may divide the frame into halves, thirds, or quarters for the composition of their shots. This will ensure each character in the frame retains the same screen section from set up to set up. Screen sections can shift or the rule be broken, but this will be for dramatic purposes, as actors move in a scene or as sets ups change the emphasis on characters: sudden inexplicable changes are experienced as confusions.
30 Degree Rule: When a camera set up moves to a new position to cover and re-frame the action it should move directly along the axis of the lens, forward or back from the figure, so that the new framing keeps exactly the same relationship between the figures in the scene and the background, or the camera will move at least 30 degrees to the side.
In the diagram for set up A. the figure is framed with a plain white background, but when the camera is moved to B, less than 30 degrees. the grey rectangular block jumps slightly into the frame because this camera move changes the background to a small but visually significant extent. This means that framings A. and B. could not be cut together because the change in angle makes little difference to the framing of the face, but the background changes significantly. The effect in editing would be like a glitch, a small jump where the shot flicks momentarily, loosing the realism of the image.
In set up C. the camera has moved over 30 degrees from the camera axis in set up A. and these two framings will cut together, because they are significantly different in terms of framing and angle. The changes in background will not be experienced as odd or unexpected because the change in camera angles makes the difference in background part of a new and distinct framing.
180 Degree Rule: A line of interest between figures in the frame creates a line of continuity were there is a half circle of 180 degrees where the camera can be place and the spatial relationship between the figures will remain coherent. In the diagram above the camera positions below the line of interest joining the two characters keep the figures in the same spatial relationship and their eye line matches correctly: in the two shots the are looking at each other as they are placed in the stage of the scene. The camera position above the line breaks the 180 degree rule and results in both the figures looking in the same direction and occupying the same screen sections in close up. This is visually incoherent at the characters are not looking in the same direction. Jumping the line leads to confusion over where the characters are in the scene.
Weak directors will often block so that the continuity line is rigid, so that the staging of action seems awkward, and this can result in static, undynamic coverage. The skill in choreographing and blocking is to create action so that the line of interest can be changed and re-established. To do this sets up can be designed which move the line, so a new set of camera positions can be used. Also, performers can change positions during a scene and in doing so create new spatial relationships and therefore offer a fresh range of camera positions. When rehearsing a scene an experienced director will allow performers to create their own motivations and blocking and then design set ups to make this work: shooting continuity footage based on the stagings that are best for the action of the story.
Movement In and Out of Frame: If two set ups are meant to produce a matching edit and a character leaves one framing they must enter the next frame from the opposite side, so that their movement will maintain the same screen direction. In the diagram above the character leaves frame right and enters frame left. What this rule maintains is screen direction. In the diagram above the figure is traveling from left to right in both framings.
Change of Screen Direction: Screen direction has to be consistent so as to avoid confusing the audience. If a character is looking one way or moving one way different framings must retain this direction. What this means is that when a character changes the direction they are looking, the direction they are standing in, or the direction they are moving in then this change of direction must be shown on screen. In the diagram above the figure changes direction in the two framings on the right, but this is not seen in the shot, so the figure is facing in opposite directions for no apparent reason. In the two framings on the right the change of screen direction is shown in one of the framings and then the new screen direction is explained and is perfectly clear.
During rehearsals the performers will want to move and the director will create blocking which requires changes of screen direction. These are crucial points in terms of visual continuity and if different set ups are covering this action they must clearly show any change in screen direction. These are also points when a performer has to get their continuity of dialogue and action correct. If a performer says the line and then moves in one set up and then moves before saying the line in another set up the result in editing will be two incompatible set ups.
Summary: Visual continuity has a clear set of rules and a good director will understand how to plan and rehearse set ups without any errors occurring. A director who does not understand the continuity system is basically shooting at random and will end up producing shots that do not match and cannot be edited together.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019